And so this month to an intriguing show of the work of the Lancastrian-born painter and social navigator, Christopher Wood. I use the latter term not wishing to cause any offence, but to reinforce the fact that, as a commentator, Wood’s work, life and lamentable early death are sentimentally and emotionally difficult to extricate from each other. However, I shall try.

His works in the Pallant House show in Chichester, England are formidable in their assembly and are a credit to the curatorial team; this is even if they do not all individually bear well detailed scrutiny against a backdrop of the contemporary. I say this because, as much as any show I have seen recently, these works feel distinctly of and from their time – they bring to me a minor revulsion and slight nausea I feel when looking at Vorticism. The temptation of hanging everything on sentimentality when a young talent is lost, (having read the erudite words of others on Wood), is to resort, almost interchangeably, to art historical, biographical and pseudo-psychological canon as a means of accounting the artefacts and his variable outputs.

As I wandered through the elegant environs of the wonderful Pallant House galleries, surrounded by the affluent middle classes of various nations, I have also to confess a nagging resentment for this work and for the man behind it, tragic as he was: As a fellow Northerner and former member of the working classes myself, part of my survival cynicism could not help wondering if this slightly spoilt, handsome, middle-class socialite would be remembered if his lifestyle and work had not been supported so generously by his network of powerful friends, lovers and associates. These numbered Cocteau, Diaghilev and Ben and Winifred Nicholson amongst many others of his circle. To be brutally honest, as a member of a public paying audience to the work - and as much as I love a good story - I was clearly far less besotted with the story of Wood’s decadence and demise than the narrators of the exhibition.

The works themselves have a decadence all of their own. For all the plaudits, supporters and occasionally brilliant paintings [1], what morbidly fascinates me about Wood is that we witness the visible artistic, social and tragic demise of a man who seems to be groping simultaneously with the Janus of identity and a signature style. This demise is shown in almost painful slow-motion given the time and medium. In the end, his fully explained (but somewhat mysterious) death at 29 years of age, under the wheels of a train, was probably a near-classic anomic suicide given his circumstances.

For ‘The Seine at Passy’, (1924), read Van Gogh; for his stage design for Diaghilev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet (1925), read De Chirico; for ‘Beach Scene with Bathers’, read Picasso, Matisse and Seurat; for ‘Porthmeor Beach’ and ‘Le Phare’ (1929) and (1928) read Wallis. I could go on, but he couldn’t; stylistic experimentation, the tradition of the homage and stylistic vacillations are (or were) a staple for developing artists, but I fear what we see here is a case of (sadly and prematurely) arrested development. With time and perseverance perhaps Wood might have achieved his aspiration to “… be the greatest painter that has ever lived...” [2] Whether Wood was actually a ‘sophisticated primitive’ or not is worth pondering with the work in front of you, but on the evidence of this show, we will almost certainly never know the true measure of his potential, of his sophistication, his real primitivism or of his talent.

[1] For me the highlight of the show is ‘The Yellow Man’, 1930. Private collection.
[2] Button, Virginia, Christopher Wood (St Ives Artists Series), Tate Publishing, 2003, p.23